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Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World Hardcover – Jan 28 2015
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"A darkling view of what our world--and what we--will be like if codex reading eventually surrenders to the flickering screens of e-readers." --Kirkus Reviews
"A must-read for all Americans concerned with having future generations skilled in critical thinking." -Nat Hentoff, The Daily Herald
"From kindergartens to universities, schools are being pressured to replace printed books with electronic ones. But is reading from a screen the same as reading from a page? Naomi Baron provides the most thoroughgoing answer yet to that crucial question. Words "Onscreen is an essential book for educators, parents, and everyone who loves to read." --Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage and The Shallows
"Naomi Baron has written a tour de force on the changes to reading in a digital milieu. It includes and then goes beyond the work before it, including my own. It deserves our "deepest reading" and re-reading in either, or perhaps, both mediums!" --Maryanne Wolf, Tufts University, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
"Anyone who loves reading about reading will love reading Words Onscreen. Baron goes back in history to place current trends in context, gives a tremendously clear-eyed view of the present, and points towards a future for those who prefer printed books that is both perilous and hopeful. What's particularly amazing is that a book so impeccably and thoroughly researched should also be so fun to read." -Will Schwalbe, author of the New York Times bestseller The End of Your Life Book Club
"The book is an engaging history of reading as well as a provocative argument about its future." --Wall Street Journal
About the Author
Naomi S. Baron is Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University in Washington, DC. She is the author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World.
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Baron concedes that certain kinds of reading are better for onscreen reading than others. Newspapers and airport novels that are read once and discarded fit into that category. But she thinks that textbooks and literature require more concentration -- concentration that is undermined when reading pixels rather than ink on paper. She cites many studies and cites many of her students in their preference for paper over screens.
In making her case, Baron throws every possible argument against digital reading, not just the distraction argument. You see this in some court cases, where there is an airtight case for manslaughter, but the prosecution goes for murder one, assault, illegal possession of a weapon, and tax evasion. The defense picks away at the weak edges of the case, and the jury acquits because they now have doubts about the whole case.
So we get charts and statistics, but we also get the serendipity of browsing in a bookstore, the smell of the book, the ability to collect and lend books, and have them autographed. I'm sure we've all been down the rabbit-hole of an internet search and that can be as serendipitous as a bookstore browse. As for the smell of the book, well, if I can smell a book, I toss it because it's mildewed or has cigaret smoke on it. The smell of paper and ink I find to be as subtle as the scent of a Kindle. The number of books I plan to re-read is quite small and even if I want to read a book again in five years, I feel confident I can find it again in a bookstore or online rather than lugging it around with me through two or three moves.
Some of the arguments have a recycled feel about them as well. In her concern that young people will lose the ability to socialize face-to-face after excessive internet socializing, Baron echoes the arguments of parents after the invention of the telephone. Her arguments about internet distractions while reading sound much like the worries over whether TV should be allowed while students are doing their homework. Even if you could eliminate all distractions, students (or drivers or neurosurgeons) will still find themselves daydreaming or suddenly remembering to make that dentist appointment just when they should be concentrating.
One concern I do share is that of privacy and the fact that Amazon or Apple or Kobo or The New York Times or the National Security Agency can monitor what you are looking at and how much time you spend on certain pages.
I did quite enjoy Words Onscreen and it certainly inspired me to think about what it means to read and even what a book is. It's been the subject of a lot of conversation around our house the past few days and it's a subject that is going to continue to get people talking for some years to come. I don't expect print books to go away a la buggy whips. I think they'll be more like the radio, which did not disappear with the advent of talking movies or television, or even now with podcasts and Spotify. The paperless office never arrived, and paperless books won't kill off the print book. The important choice we have is not which format to read in, but whether we think what we are reading is worth our attention.
If you ask me, I'm going to answer "Vanilla" 100% of the time. But if, say, I'm someone who doesn't have access to vanilla, it doesn't mean I won't still happily accept chocolate. There is inherent bias in posing the question as an "either/or" between the two flavors, as it prods me to pay more attention to what I like and dislike about them.
The same bias afflicts the oft-posed question, "Do you prefer print or electronic reading?" As Baron notes, there is indeed much evidence showing that students will tend to answer "print" when asked this question. When asked to elaborate, they will tend to give rationalizations for their choice - a choice that was forced upon them by an overly restrictive binary dichotomy. Ironically, there is much other evidence cited by Baron which would suggest that the picture is much murkier. She notes that students in different cultures have different takes on the digital/print distinction. Amongst anectodal evidence, we encounter occasional comments from people who strongly feel that reading online has no negative effects on their ability to concentrate on sustained reading.
Another flaw in the author's research is that much of it relies on self-reporting. When you ask a subject whether they think they remember more with print or with digital, a question that is already vague (and afflicted with the false dichotomy) becomes prone to hazy rationalizations and imaginings.
The book portrays e-books as new-fangled harbingers of our society's slow descent into constant distraction. The problem is that Baron doesn't just focus on her central argument - that e-books are inherently distracting, and that they inherently complement a digital culture that is becoming more fast-paced. She instead prefers to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the very notion of digital reading. So we get unnecessary detours into the smell of books; their value as heirlooms; the ability to purchase them without credit cards, free from prying government or corporate eyes; and the aesthetic appeal of owning a physical object that you can point to on your shelf. All of which are completely peripheral to what Baron should have focused on: pinning down her main claim that digital reading is somehow inherently distracting.
One distinction that much research in this field glosses over is that it uses a monolithic concept - "digital reading" - to describe practices that are often quite varied. For example, the question, "Are you more prone to multitasking when reading in print or online?" This question is invalid because it presupposes the answer. Of course more people are prone to multitasking online - because they "read" their online banking statements, their emails, their social media posts, and other more disposable online content. It does NOT then follow that reading online involves multitasking as a necessary corollary.
There are positives of this book. Even if you disagree with it, the author assembles a broad group of arguments that one can chew over. Some of her points were quite good, such as the disturbing finding that eyestrain is a common complaint among those who try to read online for sustained periods. However, overall I really feel like this book tried to accomplish too much, and oversold its case. These issues are still very much open to further exploration.
Baron begins with a state of the book address, where she lays out the history of the rise of the e-book and the shift in print publishing. She then provides a history of reading that will make a lover of reading swoon. This chapter is really worth the price of the book. In the third chapter she discusses the impact that e-reading is having on writing styles, where media are moving to punchier, shorter chunks. (This is why my blog is almost never longer than 800 words.) This is a chapter that is historiographic, again, very enjoyable for one who loves reading.
In Chapter Four Baron explains the attraction to reading onscreen, for those that appreciate it. She is fair in presenting the strongest arguments for that form of reading. Still she notes that e-books and e-readers may not be as green as claimed, particularly since most people don’t simply dispose of their hard copy books, but often resell them, lend them, and pass them down. She also notes that one does not really own an e-book, but is merely accessing its information. The more significant concern she notes is that retention in onscreen reading tends to be lower. Still, she find strengths of the medium and promotes them.
What comes of the discussion is that onscreen reading is more suitable for one-off reading. Though annotation methods are improving in e-books, they still lag significantly behind the marginalia of trusty paper copies. In Chapter Six, Baron discusses the phenomena of social reading, which began with the book club and has progressed to sharing quotes through Goodreads and other platforms. This sometimes helps people get through books, but it often keeps students from approaching texts as cleanly.
Baron dwells on one of the most significant downsides of e-books in her seventh chapter. This is the fact that people feel there is something lacking from the aesthetic experience of reading a book on a screen. It just isn’t the same as reading a real book. It is the loss of the sensory aspect of reading that has some young people hooked on paper books. And then, there is the fact that a print book has no games or apps. There is no chance that an e-mail will pop up or Facebook will demand one’s attention in the background of a paper book. Studies continue to show that some of these real issues continue to make real books a better option for deep reading.
Despite its shortcomings for some uses, Baron concludes that onscreen reading is here to stay as a complement to reading on paper. Her case is compelling and winsomely argued. The ability to get a vast number of resources online is extremely helpful for quick research. At the same time, the ability to annotate, spatially associate, and focus on a tangible object are essential for deep reading. Both forms of readings have a purpose and both are here to stay.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Not just because I agree with her conclusions, but because it was well-written, well researched and accessible. If you are a bookish sort of person, then put this volume on your to-be-read list. But buy it in paper copy because it is worth reading deeply and well.
Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. This was also reviewed at Ethics and Culture.
Review: WORDS ONSCREEN
Examination of the phenomenon of "onscreen reading" (ereaders, tablets, smartphones, desktop computers, laptops) vis a vis traditional reading (print books; printouts--in other words, "hard copy"), WORDS ONSCREEN takes an academic viewpoint. Linguistics expert Naomi S. Baron looks at both sides of the debate: aficionados of print vs. aficionados of e-reading, and explores e-reading globally.
I think in the end, it comes to a matter of personal preference. I myself began reading print books (voraciously) in the 1950's, and loved the content, the weight, the fragrance. But more than a year ago, I gave up reading print in order to preserve my eyesight (I read on an iPad and several different generation Kindle Fires). Many contemporary print books use font that several strains my vision. I expect more of my generation will take up e-reading for similar reasons.
I highly recommend that all readers, publishers, authors, and academics peruse WORDS ONSCREEN and ponder its conclusions.
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